Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott) is a prosperous local businessman in Grand Rapids, Michigan who has strong Calvinist convictions. A single parent, Van Dorn is the father of a seemingly quiet, conservative teenage girl, Kristen, who inexplicably disappears when she goes on a church-sponsored trip to Bellflower, California. Andy Mast (Peter Boyle), a strange private investigator from Los Angeles, is then hired to find her, eventually turning up an 8mm stag film of his daughter with two young men.
Van Dorn then suspects that his daughter was kidnapped and forced to join California's porno underworld. His quest to rescue her takes him on an odyssey through this sleazy adult subculture.
With no results from the PI, the Los Angeles Police Department, or even from Los Angeles' sex shop keepers and "rap parlor" women, a desperate Van Dorn ends up posing as a pornography producer in the Los Angeles Free Press, hoping to find information about his daughter. A scraggly actor named "Jism Jim", who was in the film with Kristen, knows where she might be and sends him to a sometime porno actress/hooker named Niki (Season Hubley). Van Dorn hires Niki to accompany him on the search for Kristen. Chasing a rumor that Kristen was now filming porn in Mexico, their uneasy alliance moves from Los Angeles to San Diego, gradually warming up to each other: Niki feels protected by Van Dorn because he is a man who doesn't see her as merely a sex object, and he is able to speak openly to her about his deepest feelings, such as his wife leaving him. The unlikely pair ends in San Francisco where Van Dorn finds that Kristen may be in the hands of Ratan, a very dangerous S & M porn player who deals in the world of "snuff movies". Niki, who had previously begun to think Van Dorn will help her to escape life on the streets, now finds herself fearful of being forgotten once he locates his daughter at all-alive or dead. As a result, she initially refuses to divulge the address of a porn industry player who is a link to Ratan. Van Dorn loses his temper and strikes her to get her to reveal the information.
Van Dorn finds the player, "Tod", in a bondage house and forces Tod to tell him where Ratan hangs out. Van Dorn and Mast track Ratan to a nightclub where he and Kristen are observing a live sex show. When Van Dorn confronts Ratan, Kristen flees and Ratan slashes Van Dorn with a knife. Mast shoots and kills Ratan. Van Dorn tells Kristen he'll take her home from the people he believes forced her into pornography. However, she responds with anger, stating that she entered porn of her own free will as a way to rebel against her conservative upbringing and now felt loved and appreciated in a way that the emotionally distant Van Dorn never offered. Despondent and tearful, Van Dorn asks her if she really wants him to leave her alone but she acknowledge that she does not. As the two prepare to return home, Van Dorn spots Niki. He speaks to her, starting to make a token offer of gratitude but it's clear to both that just as she had feared, her usefulness to him, and thus their relationship, is now over. She walks away, resigned to her life on the streets as it is the only life she has.George C. Scott – Jake Van Dorn
Peter Boyle – Andy Mast
Season Hubley – Niki
Dick Sargent – Wes DeJong
Leonard Gaines – Ramada
Dave Nichols – Kurt (as David Nichols)
Gary Graham – Tod (as Gary Rand Graham)
Larry Block – Detective Burrows
Marc Alaimo – Ratan
Leslie Ackerman – Felice
Charlotte McGinnis – Beatrice (as Charlotte McGinnes)
Ilah Davis – Kristen Van Dorn
Paul Marin – Joe Van Dorn
Will Walker – Jism Jim
Hal Williams – Big Dick Blaque
Warren Beatty originally wanted to play the lead, but, according to director Paul Schrader, "he wouldn't take me as a director. And in his version, it would have been his wife, not his daughter, who split for the Coast. No good. I held out. I turned down a very large sum of money. I went after [George C.] Scott and I got him. One of the greatest actors in the world.”
Hardcore earned mostly positive reviews, with an 84% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Despite arguing that the climax lapses into action film cliches, Roger Ebert nonetheless gave the movie a four-out-of-four star review for its "moments of pure revelation," particularly in the scenes between Scott and Hubley.
Hardcore was previously on VHS during the 1980s from Columbia Pictures Home Video and later RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video. In the 1990s, during that decade's 1970s nostalgia, it was reissued on Columbia TriStar Home Video. In 2004 the film received a DVD release from Sony Pictures.
In August 2016 the film received a U.S. Release on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in a limited edition (3000 copies). The disc featured a commentary track from Writer/Director Paul Schrader as well as one featuring critics Eddy Friedfeld, Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo. It is also now available on streaming video and digital download through Amazon.com, Apple's iTunes Store, Vudu and other online mediums.29th Berlin International Film Festival (Nominated)
Golden Berlin Bear: Paul Schrader